Saturday, February 19, 2011

Eating Ursula (Second Helping)

            It goes without saying (just see the rest of this blog) that I do eat animals like Ursula. And I do so, not really with any regret, but with some questions.  There are a bunch of ways to pursue these questions. In the classic anthropological literature there are a host of approaches to food taboos - what kinds of animals do we eat, what kinds of animals don't we eat, and why? On the general questions about whole species of animals – why we do or don't eat pigs, for example – it's often pointed out that pigs are denied relationships of intimacy and friendship with humans of the kind that we extend, for example, to cats and dogs, but also animals like milk cows – animals that we never intend to eat, and that we'd find quite disturbing to eat. And while pigs are rarely treated with this kind of intimacy, in all sorts of interesting ways, we do often give pigs personalities that "subvert" or "mimic" these close feelings of friendship.  We (and here, of course I mean, we Americans) use, for example, imagery of pigs as human-like eaters, gleefully enjoying the meat at, perhaps, a pig roast.   They not only look like happy animals, as in the cartoon depictions used to sell milk and cheese and chicken parts, they also appear as happy consumers of pigs  - happy as people would be -  eating barbecue.   
     This is a way of giving pigs a "personality" - but the most distinctive thing about this person is how edible they are. This undermines, all the more, the notion that pigs could be a person like other people.  It also, I think, tells us something about why pigs are both the most prized and the most tabooed of animals. Pigs are meant for eating, they are all about eating - when we eat, we make pigs of ourselves (though it's not clear that pigs are any more ravenous than any other creature). But even their being eaten carries with it a sense of the person-like creature that's consumed – thus both the taboo on eating, and the (gleeful) depiction of pigs as human-like pig-eaters.  Pigs are good to eat, but there's always something wrong about that- even if that uneasiness is smuggled in with humorous depictions of dancing pigs at a cook-out. 
            In Sahlins' noted quotation from Lewis Carroll on the question of animal edibility, the Red Queen says "It isn't etiquette to cut anyone you've been introduced to (Remove the joint)!" Naming is certainly one of the ways we introduce ourselves, and attribute personal qualities to animals to whom we extend human-like relationships. And what small farms are increasingly recognizing is that the animals that they have DO enter into relationship with people - but those relationships are not so privileged that those animals won't end up eaten if  they don't carry out what's expected of them.  So here is Ursula, named and known and enmeshed in human relationships – but that didn't save her from the barbecue pit. How is that possible?
            These relationship, it seems, are no longer barriers that keep us from eating particular animals; increasingly, among denizens of the farmers market and the Slow Food crowd, these relationships are exactly the characteristics that we now want in our food, and especially in our meat.  Farmers and consumers alike no longer want to deny the reality of the animal in question, they want to have relationships with the animals they eat, and explicitly acknowledge that the meat they eat was once an animal. 
This in itself is an important change in attitudes, a turning away from the industrial production of meat that conceals not only the animals, but the other people - the human labor - that make it possible for cryovaced packages to end up in your grocery store.  These kinds of shifting attitudes are what make it possible – even desirable – to eat an animal with a name and face and history.
            But that doesn't answer the question: is this a good thing? As we think more about the importance of the life of animals being essential to the meat that's available to us, shouldn't that make us less willing to eat meat altogether? Is there a way to eat meat without violating the whole notion that animals have lives worth living?
           There are a great many contemporary arguments on "the question of the animal" that point out that the kinds of lines that humans have drawn to differentiate ourselves from animals (of course, that means OTHER animals) are awfully hard to sustain once we think critically about the possibilities, and limitations of all animals (the work of my colleague, Barbara King, among many others, has been largely dedicated to this proposition). These fundamental, absolute differences – what Agamben calls "the anthropological machine," ways of thinking and writing that try to insist on the unique, privileged position of "humanity"– have been used to deny animals (and, of course, other "less than fully human" people!) all sorts of recognition, make them less than "real" subjects, and once they're reduced to mere objects, it's acceptable and uncomplicated to eat them (or maybe just enslave and colonize them).  But of course animals have a range of feelings, they communicate with one another – and with us –  they contribute to our activities, and pursue their own. In short, they experience life.  
          Heidegger famously (well, famously for people who care about what Heidegger wrote) wrote that "the stone is worldless; the animal is poor in world; Man is world-forming."  This idea not only claims to tell us something (though perhaps something confusing) about what makes "Man" different from "the animal," it describes that difference in terms of something that's MISSING.  People have "it"; animals, not so much.  This not only gives short-shrift to animals, but really privileges human capacities in odd ways. Of course, we all have worlds, but do we have them in any way that we want? To my way of thinking, we all have world-making abilities- AND we're all "poor in world" in some respects. Animals can all be relatively rich in world (or at least in THEIR worlds) in many ways. As I walk my terrier each morning I often think, what would it be like to get so much stimulation from being able to smell the things he can smell? Think of all the things I'm missing! The dog doesn't just have a different olfactory organ than I do, he LIVES in a thoroughly different way - in a different world.  Any attempts to promote an "anthropological machine" along lines that privilege one such world to the exclusion of all others are at least problematic. If anything, I think there is a kind of sliding scale of differences in abilities along a gradient between humans and OTHER animals. Of course, there are real material differences in us, and the worlds we inhabit (I can't smell all the subterranean wonders my dog comprehends, and he never reads my writing). But these differences don't HAVE to mean that any one way of "having a world," or any one creature should be privileged over any other.
       And yet,  some of us are edible and eaten....

[Last one on Ursula, coming up!]


  1. What I like about this one, this post, is that it makes me uncomfortable. It's boring to only read things that make me feel easy. This doesn't. And I say that, obviously, right alongside my admiration for what you're doing here, or maybe as the drive for my admiration for what you're doing here.

    (And thanks too, for the shout out!)

    Some preliminary thoughts:

    Of course, some of us Homo sapiens are edible and eaten, too-- ask people in India who live near tigers, or people in East Africa who live near croocdiles. But tigers and crocodiles aren't naming their prey...

    You write:

    >> Farmers and consumers alike no longer want to deny the reality of the animal in question, they want to have relationships with the animals they eat, and explicitly acknowledge that the meat they eat was once an animal.

    And what strikes me so forcefully is that, parallel to these farmers and consumers, are consumers who couldn't POSSIBLY eat an animal with whom they'd had a relationship. That choice is, of course, a kind of luxury, one of a certain time and a certain place. But it's nevertheless true and powerfully felt: vegetarians and vegans are very, very
    serious about this.

    Yet at the end of the day, there's something fascinatingly common to the farmers and consumers you hang out with, and the vegetarians and vegans I hang out with, in the impact of relating with other animals. And that's what I'm lost in thinking about.

  2. Yes, in fact my experience is that a great many (for shorthand I'll call them) farmers market customers were once vegetarians - if not vegans (I have data to back it up). They say things like, I was a vegan until I saw how your pigs were raised, and now I must eat as much of your bacon as possible - that's almost a direct quote. In fact, I think all food activism - by which I'd include both non-meat eaters and anti-industrial/post-pastoral carnivores - is driven by a commitment to ethical consumption.

    On the edibility issue: I take your point about humans being food for them that eats us- but I think "edible" means more than "able to be eaten", it means (for my purposes) meant to be food. A domesticated steer is not just something you can eat, its an organism produced as food - its possibilities, while not limited to that end point, are shaped around it. A milk cow is really NOT edible in the same way. Your cats and my dog are not edible, though, of course they can be eaten. Edibility is a social category, which is what the discussion of "personhood" centers on. Crocodiles may eat us, but do not classify us, or make us as their food. By the same token, your skin is also wearable, and your bones are also sculptable, but you are not a potential piece of clothing, or artwork save to the craftsperson who would pursue that purpose (which is to say, no one). Hunting carnivores may be able to eat us, but do not organize our lives around that purpose (though we would be unwise not to pay attention to their intentions when we live in proximity, I grant you).

    But I'm happy to unnerve you- if this bothered you, the 3rd post will be a doozy!

  3. It's interesting to think that people could come to such (seemingly) opposite conclusions for the best way to achieve the same goal -- ethical consumption means veganism to some, locavorism to others -- and yet how stymied the vegan must be to see the locavore's reasoning, and vice versa.

    On the one hand the commonality is encouraging. On the other, the disparity springing from the commonality is disheartening.

  4. I think it's disheartening if it leads to a unilateral rejection of the alternative you don't subscribe to. But I think the fact of multiplicity in responses to "the same" condition is great - it's what anthropology is all about!

  5. Exactly -- and there are times when it seems such a unilateral rejection is required. I know at least one vegan who believes everyone should be vegan. How can she not unilaterally reject the idea of ethical meat/animal consumption? She can be respectful, even compassionate about it, but if she believes her principle, she can't also believe that ethical meat consumption is ever okay.

    And isn't it often the infighting that makes a movement falter -- it can be hard for passionate, principled people to focus on the common ground and ignore the disparities, because for them, the disparities aren't trivial.

    (This also makes me think of politics in general, as well as not only differences among religions, but among denominations / branches, too.)